Okay, before we even start the starting I need to talk about Azula.
Azula, for those of you who knoweth not, is Avatar’s secondary antagonist. She’s the daughter of Fire Lord Ozai, the main villain, and the brother of Zuko. She’s an incredibly skilled fire-bender, a brilliant tactician, and a straight up psychopath.
Now a good few years ago I remember I got talking to some dude at a party about Avatar, and we were just fanboying over it as you do, and he looks me straight in the eye and says three words: “Azula. Best villain.” And he didn’t mean “best villain in the show”, he meant “best villain in any piece of fiction, period.” And I nodded at that, and didn’t even really consider what it was that I was agreeing to.
And it’s ridiculous, when you think about it, right? How could the greatest villain of all time be from a frickin’ Nickleodeon show from the early 2000s? It’s stupid on the face of it.
And then I re-watched the series for these reviews and a slightly scary thought started to creep over me:
Azula. Best villain.
Something happened here. Something happened in the planning, creation and execution of this character. Doubtful if any of the parties involved tried to replicate it again it would work but…goddamn they hit something when they created Azula. I’ve spent far too much time obsessing over this one character and why she work and far too little time thinking about Sozin’s comet (full disclosure, I was in hospital this week with yet another of my periodic bouts of intestinal insurrection so this review might be a little short) but I want to just set out why I think Azula works so well.
From the very beginning, I’ve always maintained that a good villain is an absolutely crucial element in whether a story works or not. Some movies don’t have antagonists, that’s true, but most do. And when they do, whether or not the villain works is a pretty reliable yardstick as to whether the movie works too. But what makes a “good” villain, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron? Well, there’s no one way to be a good villain but there are, broadly speaking, three.
- Be entertaining. These are the flamboyant moustache twirlers. Not particularly deep, but by God they have style. Think of Jafar, Maleficent, Hella from Thor: Ragnarok. You can practically hear little children hissing whenever they’re onscreen.
- Be believable. Here we have your down to earth villains. They’re real people, with understandable, compelling motivations. They’re evil, sure, but in a way that’s perfectly logical for a person in that situation. Usually found in gritty kitchen sink dramas. If a villain reminds you of someone you’ve encountered in real life, they probably belong here.
- Be absolutely fucking terrifying: Straight up monsters. The kind of characters that tap into deep, primal fears. Xenomorphs, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers.
Thing is, most great villains manage one of the above. Some of the true titans manage two (Heath Ledger’s Joker is a solid 1 and 3). But it’s almost impossible to find a villain who fits into all three categories. In fact, it sounds almost impossible. How can a villain be entertaining and grittily realistic and absolutely terrifying? It would take an incredible feat of writing and performance to make a character like that seem anything other than poorly defined and schizophrenic.
There’s a scene in the first episode of Season 2 of Avatar that sums up how all three elements of great villainy combine in Azula. She’s been sent by the Fire Lord to tell her brother Zuko and her Uncle Iroh that his banishment is over and that he’s to come home. But in reality, Zuko and Iroh are to be executed for treason. She tells Zuko that he can come home and Zuko says nothing, rendered speechless upon hearing that his banishment is over at last and his father wants him back.
“You should be happy.” Azula says coldly “Where’s my “thank you”? I want my thank you.”
It’s funny, in a dark way, that Azula is so psychotic that she wants gratitude from her brother for luring him to his unwitting death. But there’s nothing campy about it. There’s something just so chillingly believable about Grey De Lisle’s vocal performance. You know this girl. And if you don’t, you are damn lucky.
And lastly is the sheer menace that the character exudes, with more than a little assist from the excellent score.
Honestly, the only other villain I can think of who hits all three elements so perfectly is, well…
So Sozin’s Comet is the final, blow the doors off four-parter that closed out the whole series and like most series finales it’s…controversial. But before we get into that let’s recap just what’s been happening since the last time we checked in with the Gaang. By this point in the series, the war against the Fire Nation has been pretty much lost. The Earth Kingdom has fallen, Ba Sing Se (WHICH HAS TWO WALLS) has been conquered and to make matters worse, Sozin’s comet is hurtling towards the earth and when it passes overheard, all Fire Benders will get a huge boost of power.
Meanwhile, Aang is still completing his Avatar training and is trying to master fire bending. Fortunately, he now has a teacher: Zuko. Yup, Zuko has turned (partially charred) face and joined Team Avatar. The gaang (now consisting of Aang, Sokka, Katara, Zuko, Toph, Momo, Appa and Sokka’s girlfriend Suki who is not the moon) has also found the perfect place to hide from the Fire Lord, his own summer home which he never uses and where the most dangerous thing they have to worry about is the local amateur theatre troupe.
So the first episode begins with Zuko training Aang in Fire Bending. But Aang seems curiously distracted, even blowing off training to have a beach party with the rest of the gang. This drives Zuko nuts, and he launches a fake attack on the gang to show them how unprepared they are to face the Fire Lord.
The gaang are all “What the hell bra?” and Zuko is all “No, you what the hell bra?” and asks why they’re so chill considering that Sozin’s Comet is only a few days away. Aang then tells Zuko that they’ve…basically…given up on stopping Ozai before the comet arrives. Now that the Earth kingdom has fallen and the war is essentially over except for the screaming, Aang figures the best thing to do is just wait until the comet passes and use the extra time to work on his fire and earth bending. But Zuko says that’s not going to work out.
See, for like the five minutes that he was back in his father’s good graces, Zuko was invited to a strategy meeting where somebody suggested that Ozai (Mark Frickin’ Hamill!) use the power of Sozin’s Comet to Kentucky Fry the entire Earth Kingdom.
The Gaang are furious that Zuko didn’t tell them this, and he’s furious that they didn’t tell him that they were just putting “defeating the bad guy” in the “long term goals” pile and there’s clearly a lot of mistrust in this room, and a lot of barriers. But you know what? There’s a lot of love too. And the Gaang have a big group hug and resolve to defeat the Fire Lord no matter what fancy astronomical bodies he’s got in his corner.
So they start training together, with Toph playing the Fire Lord. This means Toph gets to throw flaming rocks at them and they let her do this because they don’t understand that if you give Toph the slightest amount of power she will go mad like an East African dictator in the seventies.
But there’s a problem. Their plan hinges on killing the Fire Lord and Aang has this weird hang up about holding all human life sacred or some shit. I’m being flip but this is honestly one of my favourite elements to the character. I gave Aang very short shrift in the last review but he is, in all honesty, one of the greatest heroes in all of children’s media and this is a big reason why.
Things aren’t helped when, later on, to cheer everyone up, Katara shows them an adorable picture of Zuko as a baby. But Zuko tells them that it’s not him, that baby is in fact Ozai, the diabolical dictator they’re all trying to so hard to give Aang a murder-boner for. Zuko and Sokka try to convince Aang that he has to kill Ozai and he storms off angrily.
The next morning the gaang find that Aang is missaang (okay, I’ll stop that now) and look to Zuko to help track him down (considering that was pretty much his full time job during Season 1). He takes them to the Earth Kingdom where they find June, a badass bounty hunter who helped Zuko track the Avatar before and who can literally find anyone on Earth. Or…whatever planet this thing takes place on. Also, she has whips and tattoos.
Meanwhile Ozai is preparing to launch a fleet of airships with which he will turn the Earth Kingdom into the Ash Principality and tells Azula that she can’t come with him. Azula’s all “But Daaaaddy you promised me I could genocide with you!” but then he tells her the good news: He’s making her the new Fire Lord and proclaiming himself the Phoenix King over the entire world.
And the episode ends with Aang waking up on a mysterious island off the coast with no idea how he got there.
While Aang tries to figure that out, Zuko asks June for help. June rides a giant monster named Nyla who’s a cross between a star-nosed mole, an ant-eater and your worst nightmare. Nyla can track anyone literally anywhere, but when they give her a smell sample from Aang, she can’t follow it which means that Aang is literally nowhere in this plane of existence or possibly that Nyla is a little congested. Anyway, Zuko decides that it’s time for Plan B, and that they need someone who can help them face the Fire Lord. That someone is Iroh, which will be awkward for Zuko since the last time he saw him he kinda…betrayed him and left him to rot in jail.
They ride for days until June leads them to the wall of Ba Sing Se WHICH IS THE OUTER WALL BECAUSE AS EVERYONE BUT THE MOST RANK IDIOTS KNOW, BA SING SE HAS TWO WALLS. June says that Iroh is somewhere inside the wall and peaces out, leaving them to search for Iroh in a nation roughly the size of France. Not surprisingly, the gaang decide that’s something better handled after a good night’s sleep and decide to make camp. But they’re ambushed in the night by the Order of the White Lotus, a club of cool old benders working to overthrow the Fire Lord.
Back on the island, Aang decides to ask his past selves for advice, starting with the last Avatar, a Fire Nation nobleman named Rokku.
Every past Avatar he summons tells him the same thing; that he’s got to kill Fire Lord Ozai. Well, they don’t say “kill him”. They say things like “You must act decisively” or “Justice must prevail” or “Be a shame if the Fire Lord had an unfortunate accident, capiche?”
Not happy with the answers he’s getting, Aang
retreats inside a media bubble that reinforces his pre-existing prejudices asks an Air Nomad Avatar named Yangchen what he should do. She tells him that he respect for all life is truly admirable, but that the Avatar’s first duty is to the world, and he cannot put his own spiritual needs before that. Finally, Aang is convinced that he has to kill the Fire Lord.
Meanwhile, in the White Lotus Camp, Zuko enters his Uncle’s tent and tearfully begs his forgiveness for betraying him. And before he even has a chance to finish OH GAWD…
Later, Zuko tries to convince Iroh to come with them and battle the Fire Lord. But Iroh is adamant that that’s the wrong way to win the war. Only the Avatar has the moral authority to stop Ozai. Iroh tells Zuko that once Ozai is defeated, he will have to assume the throne. Zuko says he can’t, because he’s made too many mistakes in the past. But Iroh tells him that he has learned from those mistakes, and has restored his own honour. Iroh then says that when he was a young man he had a vision that he would conquer Ba Sing Se (as it happened he did actually breach the walls of Ba Sing Se but retreated after the dead of his son). He says that now he realises that his destiny is to free Ba Sing Se from the Fire Nation, not capture it on its behalf. He tells Zuko that he must return to the Fire Nation and defeat Azula. Zuko has grown enough to realise that he needs help in defeating his sister, and asks Katara if she wants to help him kick Azula’s ass and she’s all “And it’s not even my birthday.” That leaves Sokka, Toph and Suki to stop the Air Ship armada from flambéing the Earth Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Aang wakes up on the island to discover that it’s moving. He swims under the island and discovers that it’s actually a Lion Turtle, the biggest animal in the world.
Aang asks the Lion Turtle for advice and the Lion Turtle tells him…I have no goddamn idea. I literally cannot understand a word that comes out of this character’s mouth and for some reason the subtitles aren’t working on my DVD. Anyway the Lion Turtle tells him…something…about light overcoming darkness and then leaves Aang back on land, telling him: “Wait for him, and he will come.”
Or possibly, “Weights for gymn, and chew some gum.” It’s a little unclear.
And as Sozin’s Comet streaks crimson through the sky, the Avatar awaits the coming of the Fire Lord.
Meanwhile, in the Fire Nation, Azula prepares for her coronation with a pedicure and slipping into total paranoid insanity. She’s soon banished all her servants, the puppet government of the Earth Kingdom and her most loyal advisors and begins acting completely unhinged, but the remaining Fire Emblem government officials pretend not to notice.
So the last two episodes are largely wall to wall action scenes. Iroh and the Order of the White Louts liberate Ba Sing Se and Sokka, Suki and Toph commandeer a Fire Nation airship by telling the crew that there’s a birthday party in the bomb bay and then opening the doors and dropping them into the sea (I. Love. This. Show.).
While all that’s going on, Katara and Zuko battle a now pathologically cray-cray Azula. Zuko is injured taking a blast that was meant for Katara but Katara manages to trap Azula in ice and chain her to an iron grate, finally subdueing her.
All three of these action sequences are superlative, with some of the finest music, animation and fight choreography in the whole series. But it’s the Azula sequences that have always stuck with me years after I’d forgotten other scenes. Her slow descent from spoiled tyrant to paranoid maniac and at last to snarling, feral animal is just so terrifying and perfectly realised. Like I said. Something really special happened here.
That just leaves Aang’s final battle with Ozai, a gorgeous, epic Ragnarok where the two use the very land itself as their weapon. At first Aang gets hammered by Ozai but turns the tables when he enters the Avatar-state, channelling the power of all his previous incarnations and lays Ozai low. Just as he’s about to land the killing blow, Aang remembers the Lion Turtle’s words to him.
So then, this happens.
- Aang goes blue.
- Ozai goes blue.
- Ozai goes red.
- Aang almost goes red but then goes blue again.
- Ozai goes blue.
And all that somehow took away Sozin’s powers and now he’s no threat to anyone. And now, everyone’s happy and the war is over.
“Tha foo?” you ask.
“Tha foo indeed.” I reply.
So when people say they hate Sozin’s Comet, this is what they’re talking about (unless those people are actually in the show, in which case they hate Sozin’s Comet because it makes the Fire Nation super powerful, you know what, you knew that, I didn’t have to explain that, I’ll shut up now). Because this is about as blatant a Deus Ex Machina as you’re going to find. Aang is faced with a moral dilemma, to kill Ozai or let him conquer the world, and this gripping moral quandary is resolved by…a giant green monster that we’ve never heard of appearing and giving Aang a power that we’ve never see before to resolve the entire conflict in the most tidy way possible. Now, I don’t hate Sozin’s Comet, far from it. There’s too much here that is awesome for this one bum story note to ruin (even if that story note is, y’know, the resolution of the central conflict). But, because I always like to be constructive in my criticism (shut up, I totally do) I’d like to suggest two ways that I think this ending might have been improved.
So all through the series, we’ve seen benders using the four classical elements. But in many classical belief systems there is a fifth element. This is often called “Aether” but is analogous to “spirit” or “soul” or even…
Captain Planet, man. That show had layers. So here’s what you do. You have the Lion Turtle reveal to Aang that there is a fifth element but that no Avatar has ever succeeded in bending it. And this is what you build to, Aang is the only avatar who can soul-bend because he alone of the Avatars will never, ever take a life. Okay, so then the rest of the episode plays out like before? No. The ending where Aang can just shut off Ozai’s powers still feels like a gigantic ass pull so here’s how I’d fix that.
Aang uses soul-bending to take away Ozai’s powers. But he has to pay a terrible price, he also loses his bending powers in the process. The series ends with the war over, and Aang now able to live his life as a normal kid. Aang gives up being the Avatar to save the world. It’s bitter sweet, and that makes it feel like less of a pat ending. Alternatively…
Aang uses soul-bending to strip Ozai, not of his powers, but of his sociopathy, and opens his soul to his connection with all living things. Sozin is still the most powerful Fire Bender in the world, but now he can’t do anything with that power because, for the first time in his life, he intensely feels the consequences and the pain that his actions have caused others. This would be my preferred ending because it emphasises that Aang is not simply a superhero but a spiritual and moral leader.
Anyway, shudda wudda cudda.
Despite that one glaring flaw, Sozin’s Comet is a rousing success as a series finale, that gives our character a suitably epic final battle before sending them off to their happy endings. We leave the world of Avatar with a new Fire Lord on the throne, the Earth Kingdom liberated and Aang and Katara finally getting together even though they are totally wrong for each other and Zuko and Katara makes so much more sense as a couple FIGHT ME. And that’s where our story ends, at least until Legend of Korra, which I have not yet seen but understand was quite good, and then quite bad, and then really, really good.
Avatar was a show whose animation started strong and got better and better as it went on. The finale is packed with jaw-droppingly beautiful visuals and brutally fluid action.
The kind of hero we need more of.
Mark Hamill gives real menace to Ozai, a character who is otherwise a fairly flat and generic villain. But Azula, man. Azula.
Supporting Characters: 17/20
The whole cast gets an opportunity to shine.
Fantastic score by Jeremy Zuckerman.
FINAL SCORE: 87%
NEXT UPDATE: 23 November 2017
NEXT TIME: Well it’s about time we got a sequel to Mary Poppins…